by Phil Manzano
King County Elections Director Julie Wise — a 22-year elections veteran who has done everything from answering phones to drawing precinct maps to staffing polling places to the transition to mail-in voting — has never seen anything like she is seeing now: A climate of suspicion and distrust over the electoral process eroding the bedrock foundation of American democracy.
“Through all of those years,” Wise said, “I have never experienced an elections landscape like the one we’re in today.”
“We see outright lies and conspiracy theories spread quickly online,” Wise said. “We get comments online and emails and phone calls that accuse me and my staff of voter fraud — a felony under the law — based on click-bait headlines and simply not understanding how our elections work. The tone and volume of questions has shifted dramatically, with it often seeming as if these folks are already convinced of an answer before they’ve even asked the question.”
Wise joined Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs at the King County Elections headquarters on Tuesday, Oct. 4, to intensify efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation in the run-up to the Nov. 8 general election.
Hobbs, a lieutenant colonel in the Washington Army National Guard, said he toured Iraq and Kosovo as those countries were organizing and running their first elections and saw how those countries faced violence, misinformation, and organized efforts to prevent free and fair elections.
“Never did I think that would happen here at home,” Hobbs said. “The same thing: violence, misinformation, forces arrayed to try to bring down our democracy. We saw what happened on Jan. 6 in our nation’s Capitol, and it happened here at home.”
Monday, Hobbs’ office launched the statewide Vote With Confidence campaign, approved by the 2022 legislature, to provide outreach and education on the ballot process to assure voters that elections are secure.
That effort includes radio and television ads as well as ads on subscription services such as Hulu. In addition, display ads will be placed at gas stations and convenience stores. Topics will range from voter eligibility and registration to identifying and stopping the spread of disinformation, as well as general information about the ballot and election process and how it’s kept secure.
“This November, all voters can vote with confidence, as they always have in the past,” Hobbs said. “We have launched a statewide awareness campaign across media platforms to reach people in their communities to assure them elections are secure, accessible, and transparent.”
Hobbs said the false election narrative from the 2020 election continued this year with three major misinformation campaigns and one cyber threat. Since November 2020, Washington has reported to the Center for Internet Security more than 180 instances of election disinformation that were posted online.
Hobbs cited one example of how disinformation was eroding trust in the election process: suspicion over a cybersecurity device, the Albert sensor. According to an NPR report, cities, counties, and federal agencies have been using the device to detect hackers and online attacks in the wake of Russian cyberattacks on election processes in 2016. Yet suspicion of the Albert sensor led Ferry County commissioners to disconnect the device, which, according to one cybersecurity expert, will weaken their cyber defenses as well as the national sensor system’s ability to detect hacker activity nationwide.
“Security is not an area where you can check the box and be done,” Wise said. “We have to be vigilant and on guard every single day, as we know that those who wish to undermine our elections don’t just try once and then give up. They keep trying, and we do everything we can to be one step ahead of them.”
She listed efforts the elections department has implemented: a dedicated IT team with a certified cyber security specialist; all elections staff undergoing annual cyber security training; requiring vigilant reporting of suspicious emails and attachments; systems and emails monitored continuously “for threats, phishing, ransom and malware”; and coordination with the Secretary of State’s cyber security team.
Even then, the elections department’s computers for tabulating and storing election results are “air gapped,” meaning they are not connected to the Internet or even to the County’s own network. The hardwired, closed network and server are located in the elections nerve center, a tightly controlled and monitored floor of the King County Elections headquarters on Southwest Grady Way in Renton.
With advice from security experts, including those from casinos, false ceilings were eliminated (taking away potential hidden entry or stash points), 50 security cameras monitor the building, and the elections server room is accessible to only a handful of officials who gain entry with a badge and fingerprint scanner.
The same kind of thinking went into the 75 ballot drop boxes sprinkled around King County.
“And here’s the truth,” Wise said. “Our drop boxes are tanks, for lack of a better comparison. They are constructed of ½-inch-thick steel. They weigh in at over 1,000 pounds when they’re empty and are bolted into concrete with steel bolts. Our boxes are just about impenetrable. There are no outer pry points, there are multi-locking mechanisms, and we equip them with tamper-evidence seals. Once your ballot goes into a King County ballot drop box, it’s not gonna come out until it’s emptied by our trained ballot collection teams.”
In light of those attempts to make the voting process as secure as possible, Wise emphasized the department is also trying to be as open as possible with webcams available to view the election floor and workers and doubling the number of political party election observers. The elections floor is circled by an observation track that allows members of the public to observe the ballot counting process.
“We believe that one of the best ways to battle misinformation is through radical transparency,” Wise said.
Ballots are scheduled to be mailed Oct. 19 to King County’s 1.4 million registered voters, and Wise encouraged people to vote early, track their ballots, and reach out for any questions to their dedicated number 206-296-VOTE (8683).
“While we prepare for the election ahead and all that we know it will bring, I continue to have a lot of optimism about our democracy,” Wise said. “While the questions are louder and more skeptical, the thank-you’s that we receive from voters are also louder and are more enthusiastic. As our voters look around the country at long lines and hoops to jump through, we hear again and again how grateful our voters are to vote by mail.”
Phil Manzano is a South Seattle writer, editor with more than 30 years of experience in daily journalism, and most recently was the news editor for the Emerald.
📸 Featured Image: Photo courtesy of King County Elections.
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